Essays

I Took Three Blind Dates With Books. Here’s What Happened.

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I’ve been a huge fan of the “blind date with a book” idea since working in libraries, where I had to chance to create a themed display of the type around Valentine’s Day. It was a lot of fun to collaborate with coworkers to develop a cross-category display of adult and young adult titles, wrap them up, and jot a few quick notes about the book for readers to use as their guide to whether it’d be a successful date.

But as much as I’ve loved the idea, I’ve only ever tried one for myself. An indie I love periodically offers up their advanced reader copies for a very nominal fee ($2) wrapped up as dates. The funds all go to a good cause — not the bookstore, but a community entity — so there’s no weird ethical issues surrounding the sale of advanced reader copies. The title I picked up is long forgotten, stashed somewhere in a pile or recycled during one of my cleaning sprees.

As someone who an extensive knowledge of young adult literature, I wondered if I would have any luck being surprised and delighted if I were to try a “blind date with a book” now, with the express intent of just that: surprise and delight. What happened, though, was something all together different.

Before proceeding, know that my experience was not reflective of the places from which I took my blind dates. The buying-selling experience was great in two of the three cases (the third took far longer to ship out than was listed, and though the seller messaged me with an updated ship date — that I always appreciate — the book sat with its shipping label pre-USPS for over a week past the updated date). Going into a blind date is just that: not knowing what you might get. I will note, though, in one of the cases I made a request to the seller that ultimately made me understand my experience better.

How I Selected My Blind Dates With a Book

There are dozens of interesting shops across Etsy that offer “blind date with a book” options. Knowing I wanted to specifically seek out YA, I narrowed my search to only shops offering YA books. From there, the criteria I used was about as unscientific as possible and yet, as realistic as it would be in any scenario where one is browsing: it was eye-catching.

Image of three "blind date with a book" Etsy shop images.

I was hesitant about the first date fulfilling my desire for surprise and delight. The center image above laid out what I know I love in a YA book, promising a survival story, a disability, and a female character who clearly was not beloved by all readers. It was the last part of the blind date’s description — the line from a 1-star review on Amazon — that had me put my reservations of suspecting what the book was away. “I’ve never in my life dislike the main character as much as I liked her” really sold me.

My second pick was the opposite of the first: it had almost no description on it at all. I knew I’d be picking a YA horror book and that was about it. This particular book came from a librarian, so in my notes to the seller, I said I was hoping to get something off the beaten path that someone who knew a lot of YA wouldn’t be as familiar with.

The final pick was one I went with because I loved the patterns the seller made on the blind date books. It was an aesthetically-pleasing invitation and that was all I needed.

I had considered doing a Blind Date with Book People, in Austin, Texas, one of my favorite bookstores. But, upon reading the options available via the short date descriptions, I realized I could figure out what each of the books were, thus defeating the experiment. Likewise, I wanted to keep the conditions for acquiring the dates as similar as possible (i.e., selecting them all from Etsy).

When The Dates Arrive

I cleared some time in my reading schedule to make room for three books. My plan was to read them when they arrived and give myself over wholly to the experience. That way, I could assess how well the date went on the most level playing field possible. I didn’t want to just squeeze in the books wherever I could but instead, wanted to enjoy the date start to finish.

The first book arrived quickly, and it was wrapped up delightfully in magazine paper.

Two images. Image on the left features a Black person in a fancy dress. It's a page from a magazine. On the right, a brown paper covered book with short descriptors of the book.

The 1-star review sold me, despite my reservations of suspecting what the book might be. And my reservations weren’t wrong:

Cover for I Am Still Alive book on a gray background.

I absolutely loved Kate Alice Marshall’s I Am Still Alive, which is the female-led survival story of my non-Hatchet-loving heart’s desire. Indeed, the date’s description was spot on as much as my intuition was about what the book coming my way may be.

Because I’d read the book and I’m not a big rereader, I decided to skip on picking it up again. I knew I liked it, and the date itself, while not a new meet, was a fun run-in with a former fling. In this instance, my date wasn’t successful, but it also wasn’t unsuccessful. I was surprised and delighted I could guess what the book was, even though it didn’t introduce me to a new title to try.

This finished paperback in good condition is one I plan to drop in a local Little Free Library for another reader to enjoy.

My second date was much more vague. The cover simply said “horror,” which was the genre I’d selected.

The seller’s description of the item said that leaving a note with preferences was welcome, and because I knew this seller was a librarian per their shop’s information, I left a message that I was really familiar with YA and YA horror specifically, so I’d love something that’d be a complete surprise.

Two images. On the left is a book covered in brown paper, with a black ribbon. It has the word "horror" taped on it. There's an envelop beside the book which reads "Kelly." Image on the right is the same image, but it's the back side of the wrapped book, which features a spooky stamp.

Here’s what my second date turned out to be:

Sawkill Girls book on a gray background.

I’ve read Sawkill Girls by Claire LeGrand and it wasn’t my favorite. I know it is a great pick for many readers, especially those who don’t consider themselves “horror readers,” but it didn’t click for me.

It was hard not to write this off as a book everyone already knows about and thus, my request wasn’t successful. But thinking about it more, this blind date made good sense: yes, it’s a highly-decorated and well-reviewed book, but to the average reader, it might not be as well-known as other horror YA titles are. That it didn’t surprise or delight me wasn’t a fair yardstick; it certainly would for many. I just happen to be far more read in this specific area than most other people.

I didn’t pick it up and reread it, but I did spend a good chunk of time thinking about whether or not the date was successful. It wasn’t on the scale of surprising and delighting me as a reader, but it was in potentially doing that for those who aren’t as well-versed in YA horror.

This finished paperback in good condition is one I plan to drop in a local Little Free Library for another reader to enjoy.

My third and final date came in the nicely decorated brown paper, and it included a small bookmark and two tea bags in an envelope. It was a nice little touch:

Two images. The first features a book covered in monstera leaves and brown paper, with a bookmark and two tea packets on top. The image on the right is just the covered book.

The description upon purchase for this one was simply a blind date with a YA book, no genre indicated. But this one was maybe the most disappointing to me to open and discover one of the most well-known, highly-decorated YA books of all time: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson.

Image of the book Speak on a gray background.

I’ve read this book numerous times, including as a teenager when it first published, and I’ve read the graphic novel as well. I love the book, but I was really bummed that this was my date. It didn’t feel like it offered me anything new or exciting. And unlike my notes on Sawkill Girls above, I do think Speak is so well known and such a cornerstone of YA that even readers looking to expand their horizons within the category would be a little disappointed (absolute new readers to YA, on the other hand, may be delighted, but I suspect they also wouldn’t go first to an Etsy shop to be surprised by a book). I didn’t choose to reread it, since I’m well versed in Speak, its history, and its current place in the oeuvre of YA.

The nice thing is it’s in good condition for a paperback, so I’ll be able to donate this one to a local Little Free Library and know it’ll reach the right hands of a reader.

What I Learned From Blind Dates With a Book

Although it would be easy to say this experience was a disappointing three times over, it wasn’t. I was mostly only disappointed once, and the other two dates allowed me to understand something that I’ve been edging around for a while now: I know my reading habits so well that I know what books I do and don’t like, what I gravitate toward, and what my real sweet spots are.

I don’t have a problem quitting books, and I know there are certain descriptions that always draw me to a book — in YA, those words are survival, horror, and unlikable female characters, among others. I’m well versed enough in YA that even reading a few words of a description gives me a hunch I know what the book may be, and even when I ask to go for the deeper cut, I have read or am familiar with a book that meets that criteria. This reflects on me as a reader and with a career in YA.

In thinking about my most disappointing blind date, it’s hard not to consider a few things. The first being that a blind date with a book in this capacity is about having fun more than anything. Indeed, I really looked forward to all three pieces of mail and unwrapping them, not knowing what would be inside. But it got me thinking about how I’d find a successful blind date. Perhaps I’d need a different genre within YA — fantasy or science fiction or romance may be good choices because I read those less often and even if I could figure out the book by description, choosing a book by a few descriptors might be enough to get me to actually pick it up. Maybe I’d need to pick an entirely different category, like adult or middle grade, where I still have a knowledge base and have done good reading, but maybe where I’m not as likely to have actually spent any time with the book personally or professionally.

My biggest quandary, though, was this: aside from the fun aspect, which is legitimate and real and not to be discounted, why would a blind date with a book purchased from a place like Etsy be the route one chooses to get a book? I suspect that these services operate to reach readers who, like me, are pretty tapped into reading and books. Do they deliver surprise and delight for those readers or, like me, do those readers feel like they’re not receiving something they’re not already familiar with? Are there readers who would turn to a blind date with a book from Etsy who wouldn’t first go to a library, a book website/blog/social media, or bookstore and seek out or ask for a book within a genre if they wanted to branch out?

There’s not an answer to these questions, of course, and both bookstores and libraries have utilized the blind date with a book on displays, too. While the same questions apply, it makes more sense why a reader already in a bookstore or library would choose to buy or borrow such a title. The context is already there. On Etsy, it’s a little harder to unravel.

I’m not sure I’d take another blind date with a book from a random person, even if they were a librarian. But I really and truly found a lot of value in the experience, as it allowed me to think deeply about my own reading habits and peculiarities, get excited for the mail on a daily basis, and consider what it is that makes a reading life what it is.

I suspect that if my indie or library do a blind date with a book, I’d try it out, but this time, I’d do so with something that is less my catnip and more about stretching myself to try something entirely new and unexpected. If I don’t like it, I can always move on to the next book.

Not all dates are meant to be successful. Sometimes, they’re more for learning about yourself than anything else.

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